THE GENERAL SITUATION: There was surprisingly little pushback from the Pentagon yesterday to the NBC report that disclosed details of tensions between President Trump and his national security staff in a contentious two-hour long situation room meeting last month. “I have no interest in adding to the chatter,” said one official confronted in a hallway yesterday. No one was disputing even the smallest detail of the account, which revealed the president’s displeasure with options for Afghanistan and distrust of the advice of his top generals.
None of Pentagon officials queried yesterday was willing to saying anything on the record about the meeting, in part because none of them was there. “I wasn’t in the room,” said one official who questioned whether Defense Secretary Jim Mattis, who famously likes to walk the halls of the Pentagon, took a longer than usual walk to blow off steam after returning from the White House.
But through their spokespeople, Mattis and Joint Chiefs Chairman Gen. Joseph Dunford both expressed solid support for Gen. John “Mick” Nicholson, the top U.S. commander in Afghanistan, who Trump repeatedly suggested should be fired for overseeing a losing effort. Several officials pointed out that the meeting was two weeks ago, and that Nicholson had not been fired. One suggested that it was Trump who was blowing of steam, making an over-the-top suggestion to express his frustration, and impress the generals with his desire for a much better plan for winning a war that has dragged on for nearly 16 years. Another suggested that Trump should be taken “seriously, but not literally.”
CONFUSION AT NATO: Mattis’ new strategy included plans to bolster the NATO training mission aimed at increasing the proficiency of the Afghan National Security Forces. At the NATO defense ministerial in Brussels in June, he spent time securing commitments from other allies to contribute more troops. NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg made a show of announcing that NATO nations would dispatch several thousand additional troops in support of the U.S.
But yesterday on CNN, Stoltenberg said so far the alliance has seen no matching commitment from America. “We haven't gotten a final figure from the U.S., but I expect the U.S., of course, to continue to be a part of the mission, because the U.S. is, by far, the biggest force contributor,” Stoltenberg said. “And the whole reason why NATO is in Afghanistan is in response to [an attack] on the United States.”
What if Trump decides to withdraw U.S. troops, wondered CNN’s Wolf Blitzer? “Well, around half of the troops in the NATO mission, the support mission are Europe's and the rest, half of them, older NATO allies or partner nations,” Stoltenberg said. “So there is a considerable non-U.S. contribution to this mission.” But the NATO chief expressed confidence that in the end, the U.S. would stick with the training strategy. “We have agreed to continue to train, assist and advise Afghan forces. We have ended the combat mission in Afghanistan. The focus is now on enabling the Afghans to protect and defend their own country.”
SUPPORT FOR MICK: Sen. John McCain, in the first week of his cancer treatment back in Arizona, responded to the report about Nicholson’s possible firing. The general “has served our country with honor and distinction for 35 years. He has earned the trust and admiration of those he has served with. And he has earned my full confidence,” McCain said.
McCain took Trump to task for blaming the military, when he argued the real failure lies with their civilian bosses. “The reason for this failure is a lack of successful policy and strategic guidance from Washington over many years, which has continued in the first several months of this new administration,” McCain said. He repeated a threat to put his own Afghanistan security plan into a 2018 defense policy bill when he and the Senate return to Washington in September for the fall session.
Meanwhile, McCain’s good buddy Sen. Lindsey Graham called out White House chief strategist Steve Bannon over the Trump administration's commitment to a troop presence in Afghanistan and frustration with Nicholson. Graham and fellow Republican Sen. Bob Corker were not happy about reports that Trump is mulling the possibility of replacing the Afghan commander with national security adviser and active duty Lt. Gen. H.R. McMaster. That in theory would trigger the move of CIA Director Mike Pompeo to take over as national security adviser. Graham insists Nicholson has "done a fine job" adding he didn't think "General Bannon" would be any better at dictating strategy in Afghanistan than former President Barack Obama or former Vice President Joe Biden.
CASUALTIES SLOWLY MOUNT: This morning comes word of another suicide attack in Kabul province last night, in which two U.S. troops were wounded, and a soldier from the nation of Georgia was killed. The suicide attack in the Qarabagh district also wounded three Georgian soldiers and an Afghan interpreter. All six wounded are being treated at the Bagram Airfield military hospital, and are said to be in stable condition.
The U.S. has also identified the two American soldiers killed by a Taliban suicide bomber in a NATO convoy Wednesday as 23-year-old Sgt. Jonathon Michael Hunter of Columbus, Indiana, and 25-year-old Spc. Christopher Michael Harris of Jackson Springs, North Carolina. Both soldiers were assigned to 2nd Battalion, 504th Infantry Regiment, 1st Brigade Combat Team, 82nd Airborne Division, Fort Bragg, N.C.
So far this year, 11 U.S. troops have died in Afghanistan.
Good Friday morning and welcome to Jamie McIntyre’s Daily on Defense, compiled by Washington Examiner National Security Senior Writer Jamie McIntyre (@jamiejmcintyre), National Security Writer Travis J. Tritten (@travis_tritten) and Senior Editor David Brown (@dave_brown24). Email us here for tips, suggestions, calendar items and anything else. If a friend sent this to you and you’d like to sign up, click here. If signing up doesn’t work, shoot us an email and we’ll add you to our list. And be sure to follow us on Twitter @dailyondefense.
HAPPENING TODAY, A NEW PLUMBER’S UNIT? Attorney General Jeff Sessions and Director of National Security Dan Coats are expected to outline the Trump administration strategy to plug the gusher of leaks that are said to be undermining national security. The news conference comes one day after another damaging leak of a full transcript of Trump’s private conversation with Enrique Peña Nieto published by the Washington Post, which show Trump pressuring the Mexican president to stop saying he won’t pay for Trump’s border wall. “We can't have leaks of conversations between a president and other world leaders, and feel good about that,” said Kellyanne Conway, counselor to the president, on CNN yesterday. “Presidents have to be able to know that they are having confidential conversations. And if not, our national security is imperiled.” Trump complained on Twitter last week that Sessions was “weak” when it comes to cracking down on leaks of classified information.
MANY, NOT ALL, NOMINEES CONFIRMED: The Senate heads out for its August recess today after quickly approving a batch of 65 Trump administration nominees, but four remaining Defense Department picks awaiting confirmation did not make the cut. They are now on hold until at least Sept. 5 when the Senate gavels in for its next votes. "I would hope my colleagues across the aisle would stop their stall tactics, so we can confirm the rest of the nominees," said Sen. John Cornyn, the Senate majority whip.
Democrats slow-rolled Trump's nominees on the Senate floor during the Obamacare debate. But the confirmation delays eased this week amid the smell of jet fumes, the Hill term for lawmakers’ eagerness to get out of town. Navy Secretary Richard V. Spencer and seven other DoD nominees were approved Tuesday.
“I hope the fever is breaking,” said Senate Minority leader Chuck Schumer. “I hope we can get back to a more normal way of legislating and clearing non-controversial nominees,” Schumer said on the Senate floor. “You can't avoid regular order when you want to and then say Democrats should use regular order whenever you want us to,” he said, quickly adding, “Now of course, controversial nominees will still require the proper vetting, but I'm committed to help moving non-controversial, bipartisan nominees forward.”
BLEAK BUDGET FORECAST: For all the talk of the Trump military buildup, there is little prospect of the dream becoming reality anytime soon, according to a sobering analysis by Katherine Blakeley of the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments. “National security is an afterthought in the FY 2018 President’s Budget request, playing fourth fiddle to tax cuts, cutting non-defense discretionary spending by 30 percent over a decade to a record low of 1.4 percent of GDP, and balancing the federal budget within ten years,” Blakeley writes.
“Instead of repealing the Budget Control Act caps on defense, as both Congressional Democrats and Republicans have called for, this budget would extend them six years through 2027. It does call for raising the defense caps by 2 percent annually, which would yield an additional $489 billion for national defense spending — but it offsets these raises with $1.6 trillion of deep cuts to non-defense discretionary spending that are unlikely to be enacted.”
Blakeley also takes aim at the White House proposal to phase out the overseas contingency operations account by reducing it from $60 billion in fiscal 2018 to $10 billion in fiscal 2022. “By giving with one hand and taking away with the other, the Trump administration’s PB 2018 budget would actually depress the overall level of national defense spending by $3 billion over five years — from $668 billion in 2018 to $665 billion in 2022 in current dollars.”
SCRAMBLING OVER TRANS BAN: Trump's tweets declaring transgender people unwelcome in the armed forces have plunged the Pentagon into a legal and moral quagmire, sparking a flurry of meetings to devise a new policy that could lead to hundreds of service members being discharged, the Associated Press reported. A year after officially allowing transgender troops to serve openly in the military, the department may be forced to discharge troops who willingly came forward after being promised they'd be protected.
Pentagon chief spokeswoman Dana White confirmed that talks between the White House and the Pentagon to work out the details of a new transgender policy have begun, underscoring that the Defense Department is taking Trump’s three-tweet salvo last week seriously. Whatever the final policy, court challenges are likely. And the personnel, healthcare and fairness issues sure to ensue may compel some soldiers, sailors and others to hide their identities and live a lie to remain in the military.
AIRMAN DIES IN KUWAIT: The Pentagon has identified the U.S. airman killed in Kuwait Wednesday as 49-year-old Tech. Sgt. David Board. His death was listed as the result of “a non-combat related incident.” Board was from Barboursville, West Virginia, and was a member of the state's Air National Guard. He had been assigned to the 130 Airlift Wing at McLaughlin Air Base in West Virginia. He was in Kuwait supporting Operation Inherent Resolve, the mission to defeat ISIS.
SELVA ON NORTH KOREA’S MISSILES: The vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs yesterday suggested North Korea has a ways to go before it can credibly threaten the U.S. with an intercontinental ballistic missile strike. "While it is unclear whether Kim Jong Un can actually target the United States with an intercontinental ballistic missile," said Gen. Paul Selva, "it is very clear that he has figured out how to build missiles, and he is willing to proliferate them to any country that will pay for them."
Selva’s remarks before the Air Force Association’s Mitchell Institute at the Capitol Hill Club were reported on the Pentagon’s official web page.
"Before we can assert Kim Jong Un has a nuclear missile capable of targeting the United States, there are a couple of aspects we must know," Selva said, listing four requirements. "First, he has to have a missile capable of ranging that distance." U.S. officials believe the recent launches prove he has intercontinental ballistic missile capability. Second, the North Koreans need to have a guidance-and-control system capable of guiding a rocket over intercontinental distances without breaking up. U.S. officials do not know if Kim has that capability. Third, North Korea also needs to develop a re-entry vehicle that can survive the stresses of an intercontinental missile shot. Once again, U.S. officials do not know if North Korea has this technology. Finally, the North needs to develop a nuclear weapon that can survive that trip. Again, the United States doesn't know, Selva said, according to the Pentagon report.
THE TWITTER OPTION: Sebastian Gorka, a deputy assistant to the president, is arguing that Trump will be able to pressure China to do more to deal with North Korea through the sheer power of his tweets. "We have the president's Twitter feed. We have the most powerful man in the world making it very clear that we came out of the Mar-a-Lago summit with very high hopes," Gorka told Fox News when asked what the Trump administration could do to get China to act.
"Let's look at the facts. Forget op-ed pieces in newspapers across the globe. China controls more than 80 percent of the imports into North Korea. That is a massive point of leverage. China has wanted a buffer state since 1950. We understand it. But at some point, a buffer state that destabilizes the region isn't good for Beijing either.”
GORKA’S JOB SAFE, FOR NOW: A string of recent dismissals at the White House involving national security staff will not include Gorka, according to a report Thursday. Gorka, a combative former editor at Breitbart News who focuses on counterterrorism issues, has long been a target of Democrats and others, because of alleged anti-Muslim comments he's made and his alleged ties to a Hungarian political party connected to Nazism.
The Daily Beast says Gorka is safe from a new sweep of national security officials at the White House because he reports to Trump instead of McMaster. Trump also reportedly likes Gorka's pugnacious performances on cable television, and says he's popular with the president's base.
KEEP YOUR CLEARANCE: McMaster reportedly told former national security adviser Susan Rice in April that she would continue to have access to classified information, and that he would waive a "need-to-know" requirement when it comes to accessing classified information contained in documents she saw or received during her time as national security adviser.
The letter was sent from McMaster to Rice's home in April, according to Circa, and the president didn't know about either the letter or McMaster's decision to allow Rice to keep her Top Secret/Sensitive Compartmented Information clearance. "Going forward, the NSC will continue to work with you to ensure the appropriate security clearance documentation remains on file to allow you access to classified information," McMaster said in his letter.
CHEM WEAPONS DESTROYED: The U.S. this week bombed a suspected chemical weapons factory in Syria in order to keep increasingly desperate Islamic State fighters from using them on the battlefield, as U.S.-backed Syrian rebels continue to gain ground in the battle to liberate Raqqa. "We know that ISIS has proven in Iraq that they are willing to use chemical weapons," said Col. Ryan Dillon, a U.S. military spokesman in Baghdad. "We have not seen the use of chemical weapons in Syria, but we don't want to wait for them to use it either," Dillon said at yesterday’s Pentagon briefing.
PRESS OFFICE MOVES: Navy Capt. Jeff Davis will be conducting his last press gaggles today and Monday before leaving for vacation. When he returns Sept. 1, he’ll be taking an assignment assisting chief spokesperson White while he waits for an expected promotion to admiral to come through. There is a backlog in approving promotions in the Navy because of the “Fat Leonard” bribery scandal. Davis is in line to eventually be named the next “CHINFO,” the Navy’s Chief of Information, but in the military, no one presumes anything until it happens.
The current CHINFO Rear Adm. Dawn Cutler retires today, and will be replaced on an acting basis by Navy Capt. Greg Hicks, the current spokesman for Dunford. Davis’ slot as director of press operations is being filled by Army Col. Rob Manning, who is coming from South Korea, where his firsthand knowledge of all things Korea will no doubt come in handy in his new assignment.
Fox News: U.S. Special Ops Help UAE Forces In Yemen Anti-Terror Operation
CNN: Russia And Syrian Regime Seeking To Poach US-Backed Fighters
New York Times: In Iran, Rouhani Shows Signs Of Yielding To Hard-Liners On Women In Cabinet
Defense News: Trump administration launches review of drone export regulations
Scout Warrior: Air Force Small Diameter Bomb II Tests for F-35
Defense One: US Military Eyes New Mini-Nukes for 21st-Century Deterrence
Reuters: U.S. may soon expand U.N. talks on North Korea sanctions, signaling China deal: diplomats
DoD Buzz: Coast Guard design for Navy frigate? It’s doable, Zukunft says
Politico: McMaster gets new cover in West Wing skirmish
Wall Street Journal: Russians portray Washington as mired in chaos
Marine Corps Times: Marines applying rapid acquisition in cyberspace
USA Today: Trump stalls decision over troop increase in Afghanistan amid war strategy debate
Washington Post: What an ISIS suicide attack looks like from the air and the ground
USNI News: NAVSEA: New SPY-6 radar scores in ballistic missile defense test
Breaking Defense: Laser In Front, Grunts In Back: Boeing's Anti-Aircraft Vehicles
Task and Purpose: Trump is right to be skeptical of the Pentagon when it comes to Afghanistan
War on the Rocks: How the enemy could hit the U.S. Army at home
Business Insider: Marine Corps Wants A Few Good Officers with PhD's
Navy Times: Want Tom Cruise's 'Top Gun' flight suit? You'll have to bid big
TUESDAY | AUGUST 8
8 a.m. 5701 Marinelli Road. Global explosive ordnance disposal symposium and exhibition. ndia.org
8 a.m. 11790 Sunrise Valley Dr. How Washington works workshop - Navigating the DOD. ndia.org
8 a.m. 300 1st St. SE. Middle East missile realities discussion with Uzi Rubin, former director of the Israeli Missile Defense Organization. mitchellaerospacepower.org
10 a.m. 529 14th St. NW. CIA whistleblower John Kiriakou and former State Department official Matthew Hoh discuss a petition to Congress and Defense Secretary Jim Mattis calling for removal of all U.S. military aircraft from Syrian skies. press.org
11 a.m. 214 Massachusetts Ave. NE. Defending the homeland and the future of the U.S. countering violent extremism policy with Katharine Gorka, senior advisor for the Department of Homeland Security. heritage.org
8 a.m. 300 1st St. SE. Middle East missile realities discussion with Uzi Rubin, former director of the Israeli Missile Defense Organization. mitchellaerospacepower.org